Students don’t need to attend a four-year college to have an international education experience.
The U.S. government and some community colleges are working to provide more students at two-year institutions with exposure to global cultures and ideas. One effort aims to send more community college students abroad, while another brings international students to U.S. community colleges, creating more diverse campuses.
In fall 2014, approximately 7.3 million students enrolled in for-credit courses at community colleges, according to American Association of Community Colleges data. Of that, 94,022 students were international, per a report from the Institute of International Education.
But during the 2014-2015 academic year, only 7,105 students at two-year colleges studied abroad, according to the institute. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is working to increase this number, says John Sedlins, branch chief of the Humphrey Fellowship and community college programs at the bureau.
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Sedlins says finding the time to study abroad can be challenging for community college students “who are often working full time and studying at night.” But he says the State Department is committed to helping them.
Here are two government-backed programs aimed at boosting international exchange at the community college level.
Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program
Studying abroad helps students build skills they’ll need to succeed in a global economy and face global challenges, says Leeanne Dunsmore, branch chief for U.S. study abroad at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
One way the government is working to make these opportunities more accessible to all students is through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which helps fund overseas study or internships for low-income undergraduate students at both four- and two-year institutions.
The program will award around 2,800 scholarships this academic year. Award recipients at the community college level can participate in programs that range in length from a minimum of two weeks to a maximum of one academic year, according to the program website.
Earlier this year, Michael Clark, 41, then a student at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, won a Gilman scholarship to help finance a fall 2016 semester abroad in Uganda.
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Clark’s classes started in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in August, and since then he’s traveled to different parts of the region for coursework and to conduct research. As part of the program, he says he’s listened to guest speakers, participated in a homestay and even spent time studying a local language.
“It’s a really intense experiential learning program,” he says. “So you get involved in understanding what people’s lives are like.”
Clark’s research focuses on barriers to health care access for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees in Uganda. For this project, he interviewed refugees, local government officials and health clinic workers, among others.
After returning to the U.S., Clark will be taking courses at CUNY—Hunter College, majoring in public health and human rights.
Community College Initiative Program
While the Gilman program offers scholarships to U.S students, another program provides financial support for international students to attend U.S. community colleges.
The Community College Initiative Program, or the CCI program, is government-funded and finances 10 months of study in the U.S. for international students. It targets students from underserved and underrepresented populations, Sedlins says.
This year 211 students from 13 countries are participating in the program, and they are studying at 13 community colleges located throughout the U.S. One of the host institutions is Northern Virginia Community College, which administers the program.
Current program participant Hilary Houenou, 20, who hails from Ivory Coast in West Africa, is studying business administration with a focus on marketing at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. She arrived in the U.S. in July and says in the beginning her stay was challenging due to culture shock.
But things became easier after a few months, and Houenou says the community in Iowa now feels like a home away from home.
CCI students study select academic fields that contribute to economic development in their home countries, says Sedlins. Students can earn one-year certificates in these fields, which include early childhood education, information technology and applied engineering. Program participants can take courses to bolster their English too.
The students also participate in community service, internships and cultural activities, according to the State Department. For instance, Houenou says she’s volunteered at a local school and interned at the African-American Museum of Iowa.
The CCI program brings diverse groups of overseas students to community colleges and allows both international and domestic students to learn – inside and outside the classroom – from each other’s experiences, experts say.
Syedur Rahman, director of international education programs at Northern Virginia Community College and project director for the CCI program, says the program helps “bring the world” to students at the college. “But we also send America to the world through the experiences of the CCI students,” he says.